Class is in Session

Ag in the Classroom promotes "ag literacy"

Published in the January 2016 Issue Published online: Jan 30, 2016 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Throughout much of history, agriculture was ingrained in and around the way a person was educated. From peasant to aristocrat, an understanding of how to best make the land work to bring forth food and profit was essential to whatever level of success one sought to attain. Reading, writing and arithmetic were taught as a means to enhance business skills, but it was common knowledge that most of the businesses those skills would serve would be agriculture-based. Those who best learned and applied the principles of agronomy, genetics and irrigation were often those esteemed highest by their contemporaries.

Sometime in the 20th century, a shift occurred. People had for decades been leaving the farms for the cities, but now farms began to fade from the consciousness of the general public.

Seeing the gap between farmers and non-ag folk continuing to grow, U.S. secretary of agriculture John Block called for a special meeting of educators and agricultural groups in 1981 to discuss agricultural literacy. A national task force was selected from this group to explore potential solutions. From this was born the national and state Agriculture in the Classroom programs.

Over the past 35 years, Ag in the Classroom (AITC) has evolved, but its core tenets have remained the same: Encourage ag literacy and give educators the tools to do the same.

“We have a strong mantra of ‘Education first, promotion second,’” says Al Withers, director of Minnesota’s AITC program. “We really try to walk the line of what the teachers need and want and what the industry thinks it needs and wants. It’s a fine line between ‘agvocacy’ and sound education.”

In Minnesota, Withers says, one of the most successful campaigns has been the publication of Ag Mag, an educational magazine sent to elementary school classrooms across the state three times per school year. Ag Mag, which is targeted to fourth through sixth grades, is now in its thirtieth year of publication and remains a hit with both teachers and students. In 2007, Minnesota AITC launched Ag Mag Jr. for younger grades, and it has proven just as successful as the original.

“Teachers want something that can be in the kids’ hands,” Withers says. “They want something that can be used in both informal and classroom settings and can bring current information kids like. Ag Mag does that.”

While AITC programs work hard to bring awareness to students, administrators recognize that educating educators is where the most success is to be had. Several states’ AITC programs work closely with colleges and universities to provide current and prospective teachers with knowledge and resources to incorporate agriculture not only in ag classes, but into so-called core subjects.

“A principal or teacher may say, ‘We don’t teach ag in the sixth grade,’” says Withers. “I say, ‘You teach history, science, geography, government, debate, nutrition. We’re not asking you to teach agriculture; we’re asking you to embed it in your social studies and science.’”

Lorri Brenneman, director of Montana’s AITC program and current president of the national organization, recalls a particular success story of teaching those who teach:

“Last summer I taught a class and had a producer come in and talk,” she says. “He said they were the hardest questions he’d ever had to answer. He also said it was the most enjoyable day he’d ever had. He just felt the teachers were engaged and really wanted to know about what he did. The teachers, in turn, said, ‘We really didn’t understand why farmers did some of those things, and now we do.’”

A trend both Withers and Brenneman have seen in the last decade or so has been a growing disconnect from agriculture not just in urban classrooms, but in rural teachers and students as well.

“Twenty years ago, the commodity groups told me I had to get to the city,” says Withers. “Ten years ago they told me, ‘You’ve got to get to everybody, because even our rural areas aren’t connected anymore.’”

“I would like to tell you there’s no disconnect, that we live in an agricultural state, that agriculture our No. 1 industry and everyone knows it,” says Brenneman. “But  there’s a big disconnect between agriculture and the public.”

With an estimated 25,000 agriculture-related jobs going unfilled annually due to a lack of qualified job-seekers, it’s more important than ever to make sure youth understand what the industry has to offer. “People simply don’t understand that you don’t have to inherit the farm to be in agriculture,” says Brenneman.

But, to hear Withers, Brenneman and their counterparts tell it, things are looking up. AITC understands what teachers are up against and makes an effort to supply formal lesson plans and units that meet state and national education standards and fill established requirements.

“We are formal education,” says Brenneman. “Everything we do with teachers is integrated and standards-driven. It’s a lesson plan that’s aligned to their standards and is ready to go.”

“The interest in ag literacy is huge right now,” says Withers. “Now is the time for producers to reach out to their local school districts, teachers and state Ag in the Classroom directors. Offer a tour. Offer some support in some way. We’re at a high level right now of people valuing the producer.”

If the producer values the appreciation of the consuming public, with the help of organizations like Ag in the Classroom, we may be entering a new age of ag literacy.